Blood Moons, Cosmic Imagery, and Reading Biblical Poetry

I set my alarm last night in order that I might catch a glimpse of the recently hyped blood moon. Sadly, I don’t own a telescope (and the zoom feature on my iPhone is somewhat lacking). Nevertheless, I was able to see the moon in the distance with a distinct shade of red.

blood-moonThere has been a lot of discussion and speculation on how (or if) this rare phenomenon is related to matters of biblical prophecy. Pastor John Hagee has gone on record as saying, “God is controlling the sun, the moon, and the stars to send our generation a signal that something big is about to happen.” Another popular speaker on the subject, Mark Biltz, has recently published a book entitled ‘Blood Moons: Decoding the Imminent Heavenly Signs’ which is creating quite a stir. Based upon the book’s title, it seems that Mr. Biltz thinks that readers of the Bible can “decode” its messages in order to make sense of the blood moons.

Now normally I wouldn’t pay much attention to someone like Hagee, who stated that God sent hurricane Katrina to punish the sinners in New Orleans, or to a book with the word “decoding” in the title. However, speculations and talks concerning the blood moons are occurring in my circles of acquaintances, so I feel that I should offer a comment or two on the matter.

The Bible, not infrequently, speaks of cosmic disturbances such as the moon turning to blood. Most of these references occur among the oracles of the Hebrew prophets. When I hear of people like Hagee and Biltz reading these references literally, I begin to question whether they have truly recognized that prophetic literature is primarily poetic in nature and therefore needs to be handled within the hermenutical bounds of poetic prophetic discourse. This fact is confirmed by standard Bible reference works on the biblical prophets. David Peterson’s article helpfully remarks that “[m]ost, though not all, poetic speech is set as poetry” (“Introduction to Prophetic Literature,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, 12 vols. [Nashville: Abingdon, 1996] 6:15). If the prophets are primarily writing in poetry, why would we, as responsible interpreters, read their oracles with such wooden literalness?

I am confident that a brief survey of the various cosmic disturbances (such as the moon turning to blood) expressed in the Bible will demonstrate that this sort of language was intended to be taken figuratively rather than literally. Consider for example Isa. 13:10,

For the stars of heaven and their constellations will not flash forth their light; the sun will be dark when it rises and the moon will not shed its light.

This reference to a universal “lights out” is located in Isaiah’s oracle concerning Babylon (Isa. 13:1). Its demise is called the day of the LORD (Isa. 13:6, 9) and will occur when God stirs up the Medes against the Babylonians (Isa. 13:17). Babylon’s fall is here expressed with significant cosmic imagery and poetry.

Another passage involving Babylon is found in Jer. 4:23-28,

I looked on the earth, and behold, it was formless and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and behold, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and behold, there was no man, and all the birds of the heavens had fled. I looked, and behold, the fruitful land was a wilderness, and all its cities were pulled down before the LORD, before His fierce anger. For thus says the LORD, “The whole land shall be a desolation, yet I will not execute a complete destruction. “For this the earth shall mourn and the heavens above be dark, because I have spoken, I have purposed, and I will not change My mind, nor will I turn from it.”

This vision of Jerusalem’s destruction at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar (Jer. 4:6) is full of cosmic imagery. In fact, the order of the affected objects in the vision strikingly parallels the creation account situated in Gen. 1:1-2:4.

-formless and void (Jer. 4:23; Gen. 1:2)

-light (Jer. 4:23; Gen. 1:3)

-heavens (Jer. 4:23; Gen. 1:8)

-earth (Jer. 4:23; Gen. 1:10)

-birds (Jer. 4:25; Gen. 1:20)

-humanity (Jer. 4:25; Gen. 1:26)

This suggests that Jeremiah had Genesis chapter one in mind when he put his vision into writing. However, while Genesis turns chaos into order, Jeremiah turns order into chaos. The destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 586 BCE was considered by Jeremiah, poetically, the undoing of the natural created order. When the people of God suffer, the whole world suffers.

A small digression to the psalms reveals another example of poetic cosmic imagery relating to God’s judgment. In Psalm 82 (which I blogged out a few weeks ago) God takes his stand in the midst of (what are likely) human Israelite judges (Ps. 82:1). They were supposed to demonstrate justice and refuse to show partiality (82:2). They were entrusted with the task of vindicating the weak, fatherless, afflicted, destitute, weak, and needy (82:3-4). Since the judges are not living up to their vocation, the psalmist can say in 82:5,

They walk in darkness, all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

Note carefully that the very foundations of the land are shifted precisely because God’s people are being neglected by the judges. This is obviously meant to be read poetically.

The prophet Amos spoke in the eight century BCE to the northern tribes. His oracle also carries with it cosmic metaphor (Amos 5:18-20, 27),

Alas, you who are longing for the day of the LORD, for what purpose will the day of the LORD be to you? It will be darkness and not light; as when a man flees from a lion and a bear meets him, or goes home, leans his hand against the wall and a snake bites him. Will not the day of the LORD be darkness instead of light, even gloom with no brightness in it?… “Therefore, I will make you go into exile beyond Damascus,” says the LORD, whose name is the God of hosts.

One could make a case that this passage carries in it the very first reference to the day of the LORD, which clearly here refers to the fall of the northern tribes to Assyria and their subsequent exile beyond Damascus (5:27). This day will be so unfortunate that it is characterized with darkness and not light; not even a measure of brightness (5:18, 20). The poetry indicates that the fall of God’s people will be colored with disaster and not vindication.

I could go on citing these examples until the cows come home. Other notables include the sky being “rolled up like a scroll” at the destruction of Edom (Isa. 34:4), the trees “clapping their hands” when the Jews return from Babylonian captivity (Isa. 55:12); and the entire kosmos “groans and suffers like a woman in labor” for its restoration (Rom. 8:22). The prophetic imagery indicating the involvement of the heavens and the earth in the affairs of God’s people is described in biblical poetry, suggesting a more figurative reading of these texts.  What is disaster it would be if each of these texts were read with a wooden literalness!

In short, I suggest that a careful reading of how the Bible uses poetic cosmic imagery would encourage a more flexible reading of such passages like “the moon will be turned into blood” (Acts 2:20). The biblical images are “earth shattering” (pun intended).

 

 

 

 

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